In light of the recent news that the United States will start phasing out privately run prisons, we wanted to share a story we worked on with the Singapore Prison Service just last year. We strongly believe for-profit prisons have no place in society and that second chances at life do exist.
Stepping out of the freedom zone into Changi Prison, I can’t help thinking prison structures are worth a story in themselves. Like Rikers Island or Alcatraz, they are unyielding monoliths that strike awe into our hearts, and ignite a voyeuristic desire to see what’s inside. Certainly, they are cautionary symbols to keep people on the straight and narrow path. I remember passing by the towering walls of Changi Prison in a car with my mother and hearing her say, “That’s where you’ll go if you’re naughty.” It wasn’t the worst mistake a parent can make, but that is precisely the tone that society has adopted towards law breakers, one that has to change if we recognise that we have no right to condemn the living hope out of those who’ve erred.
As egregious as crimes can be, they could have been committed by anyone, including us. Many were caught in situations so desperate that they failed to make the right decisions. But there is another mistake that has seeped insidiously into the process of punishing wrongdoers: prejudice. From young, we are taught that good deeds are rewarded and bad ones are punished. The fear of punishment is generally enough to keep us on the right path, but this same fear is also what makes us shun those who’ve strayed.
Hanniel Choong is one of those who strayed. At his worst, he was a desperate heroin abuser, shivering at HDB staircases, and struggling to get his next hit. When the police attempted to apprehend him, Choong jumped off the third floor of a block of flats. He managed to escape but broke both his legs in the process. Even in hospital, he begged his “friends” to deliver straws to him. Now 54, Choong has spent almost two decades in and out of the Singapore prison system for drug-related offences between 1977 and 1996.
“When I was a teenager, I wanted to run my life my way – my decision, my rules,” Choong recalled the ideals he had held in his youth. He was just 16 when he was hauled into the Drug Rehabilitation Centre (DRC) for the first time. It was the year 1977. Born in the hippie era to a poor family, Choong was dissatisfied with his lot and became an easy target for gangs. He says his first mistake in life was joining one of those gangs. He was impressionable and needed to feel a sense of belonging to something. Abusing drugs was just the by-product of his choice. Choong couldn’t stay away from the pull of drugs. He even dealt drugs for a quick buck to feed his addiction. He was sent to the DRC twice more before getting caught for dealing drugs and landed in prison, this time for five years along with five strokes of the cane.
“When I came out, I was on the run again. I was desperate with no friends to turn to, no home to go back to and no money to run away with. My life hit rock bottom,” Choong shared. He turned to a halfway house, staying for a couple of months. There he discovered religion. Powerful as faith may be, the road to recovery is never easy for a drug addict and Choong slipped between the cracks again in just over a year. “It took me another term in prison before I was truly repentant. While I was in the DRC for the fourth time in my life, I reconnected with religion,” he explained, pointing out where his turning point was.
Coming out, Choong returned to the halfway house, choosing not to go back to his family immediately but rather, concentrate on kicking the habit fully. Spending over 20 years on the wayward path, Choong understands the plight of offenders and spends a lot of his time visiting Changi Prison regularly to counsel inmates serving the last 10 months of their sentences.
Behind the five layers of security that keep inmates out of the public view, these last 10 months are a crucial stage for an inmate and more importantly, a part of prison life that remains overlooked by the outside world. The different clusters in the maze that is Changi Prison play home to many different institutions where inmates live in various stages of their sentences. Here in the B4 institution, rehabilitation is more than just a buzzword. Back in the late ’90s, the Singapore Prison Service underwent a drastic change – with a rapidly evolving society came the need to revamp how the Prison Service worked. The model of incarcerating offenders and merely punishing them had proven ineffective for the longest of times. The rate of re-offenders, or recidivism, was only increasing.
Superintendent (Supt) Teo Hock Soon, now the Superintendent of B4, had just joined the force back then and he remembers the evolution of Singapore’s prison life. “Back then, the director of prisons Chua Chin Kiat led the change across the board from just locking up the inmates to actually rehabilitating them,” he explained. “One day, these inmates had to go back to society, back to being a father, a son – what could we do to help them along this path?” While the way of housing an inmate has changed, by no means has Changi Prison evolved into a luxury spa of sorts.
My immediate reaction to passing by the first layer of security was one of dread. Consciously, you know you’ll be out soon enough but the high fences, the levels of security, all feed off your subconscious fears. Supt. Teo walked us around his institution and explained how in the last months of an inmate’s sentence, the rehabilitation factor becomes integral.
“The inmates are in Changi Prison because they’ve broken the law. They’re here for punishment and they have served that part in the deterrent phase,” Supt Teo expressed, informing us that the deterrent phase took place in another institution. “There, the inmates have only an hour out of their cells every day. In that phase, the idea is to make them understand and feel the consequences of their actions.” The developmental phase, or pre-release, is a different ball game altogether. Here, Supt Teo feels is where you can alter the need to break the law again. “We like to ask the inmates what their hopes and dreams are. Can you imagine that so many of them have never had anyone ask them that question?”
In B4, hopes and dreams are the very essence that drive progress. Supt Teo recalls inmates whose dreams were as simple as taking a holiday with their parents, an activity easy enough for us to fulfil but for the inmates, a form of motivation. Chua Zhi Ren, a correctional rehabilitation specialist, meets with groups of pre-release inmates thrice a week to keep them on track. “What we do is evidence-based psychological counselling,” he explained. “I sit down with them and we examine the high and low points in their lives, and what drives them to criminal behaviour.” These counselling sessions soon evolve into skill-building classes for the inmates with an emphasis on learning to communicate, a necessary skill for reintegration. “We teach them how to voice out when they’re angry over something, like a supervisor accusing them when they’ve done nothing wrong,” Chua says, also admitting that it’s life skills like these that people never quite think about.
Life skills aren’t the only emphasis at B4. Some inmates choose to learn art as a form of therapy. The institution’s Visual Arts Hub plays a dual role as a therapy centre as well as a gallery of sorts. Here, volunteers from arts schools such as the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and LaSalle College of the Arts spend time sharing their skills with the inmates. The officer-in-charge there explains that they want to impart “positivity through creativity”. The sculptures, paintings and prints that line the walls of the Hub are a testament to this lesson. Inmates’ names are proudly displayed next to their artworks and the level of technical skill is stirring and impressive.
Huge sprawling canvases adorn the walls and newspaper clippings of the artist, a former inmate, are enshrined forever next to it. “We’re always proud of them,” the officer-in-charge says with a smile, “The ones who want to learn really pick it up fast enough and it becomes a choice for them.” He shares with us the story of a former inmate who first started without any technical knowledge of art but went on to impress a volunteer from LaSalle College of the Arts, who then initiated a collaboration with him after his release.
The inmates that were working on their own projects there were deep in concentration, almost oblivious to the fact that we were walking around them. Those that did, looked up, smiled and continued creating.
The journey through an inmate’s pre-release phase is filled with activity, an effort by the prison to mimic life outside the tall walls. From classes to counselling sessions, the inmates are subtly pushed in the right direction. Has the Singapore Prison Service’s new direction helped? A resounding yes. Supt Teo shared with us that when he joined, recidivism was at 44 per cent, an amount that meant after two years from release, slightly less than half of offenders would offend again.
These days, the numbers are looking better at 27.6 per cent. But recidivism is a statistic scarily vulnerable to factors like the economy. An ex-offender is more likely to reoffend without the chance of a job, an idea that affects the people standing on the “good path” more than we’d like to think it does. Supt Teo puts its simply, “Society needs to see that ex-offenders should not be cast out from our midst. They’re not beyond redemption and they deserve to be given a second chance in life.”
The desire to distinguish ourselves from others that have fallen is almost instinctual. The English writer Alexander Pope once wrote, “To err is human, to forgive divine.” The phrase, plastered over places of worship everywhere remind us that forgiving is an intellectual choice. Forgiving someone who has wronged takes a bigger person. The stigma of a criminal record can be the second prison that is more terrifying than the first. Imagine having served time, changing your old ways, but finding that no one wants to employ or accept you, and the life that you hoped for and worked so hard towards during your rehabilitation cannot be attained.
The ex-offender’s journey is never truly done. Ending each day without regressing to their old behaviours is a step on a path that never ends but they keep at it, moving as far away as possible from what the prison buildings represented. With the help of society, hopefully the day will come when these monoliths become just mere blocks of concrete. And nothing more.
This article was first published in the November 2015 issue of AUGUSTMAN
Picture credits: Dominic Phua of DAYDREAM